“The one thing that I’ve noticed about common sense during my lifetime, and I would bet almost anything that you’ve noticed it too, is that is doesn’t seem to be quite as common as it used to be,” Flathead County District Court Judge Dan Wilson said on the afternoon of Nov. 17, addressing a room of Republicans at the Glacier Country Pachyderm Club’s weekly lunch meeting at the Red Lion Inn.
Wilson continued: “It means, not only a particular approach to a problem, but it also means a person who approaches a problem steeped in Montana’s values, its traditions, its deeply held beliefs, but also with the notion that there is a solution to every problem and it must be based on principles and law, and for judges, the Constitution, which in any event, is a power and authority that’s higher than any of us, or all of us put together.”
The room applauded.
Wilson on June 22 launched his candidacy for a seat as an associate justice on the Montana Supreme Court, following an announcement that current Justice Dirk Sandefur would not be seeking reelection. Since the inception of his campaign five months ago, Wilson has centered his messaging on his experience in the judicial realm and his dedication to the principles of the Montana Constitution. The judge has lauded the support he has received from Republicans and Democrats alike, something he spoke openly about at the Pachyderm event on Nov. 17, and has asked voters from all camps to send him to serve on the state’s highest court.
“I have found that my campaign message had been resonating across the entire political landscape,” Wilson said, addressing the Glacier Pachyderm. “I hope it’s because, primarily, my reputation precedes me.”
The Glacier Country Pachyderm Club is the Flathead Valley chapter of the National Federation of Pachyderm Clubs, an organization designed to promote engagement in local Republican politics.
Wilson also spoke at the Flathead Democrats’ Harvest Dinner on Nov. 11.
Wilson began his judicial career in 1993 as a prosecutor in Great Falls before becoming deputy county attorney in Cascade and Chinook counties and, later, a prosecutor in Flathead County. The judge was elected to serve as Flathead County Justice of the Peace in 2010, stepping into the role in 2011. He has served as Flathead County District Court judge since 2017.
Employing an analogy about the annual Brawl of the Wild between the University of Montana and Montana State University’s football teams, which took place on Nov. 18, Wilson described himself as an impartial and seasoned referee who harbors no vested interest in helping either “team” win.
“I have been devoted, not only to the game, but the integrity of the sport. I have officiated disputes. I have officiated games in my highest and best ethical capacity, and have done my level best to call a fair game,” he said.
Judicial races in Montana are historically nonpartisan, given rules in the Montana Code of Judicial Conduct that bar judicial candidates from accepting endorsements from sitting politicians and speaking about certain political issues.
The historic nonpartisanship of the state’s judiciary saw a challenge last year, however, when Republican politicians and interest groups mounted an endorsement campaign in favor of the Republican president of the Public Service Commission James Brown during Brown’s run for the Supreme Court. The Montana GOP spent more on Brown’s race for the Supreme Court than it did on all of its legislative candidates in partisan races combined during the 2022 election cycle.
Montanans rejected Brown’s campaign on Election Day, however, reelecting incumbent Justice Ingrid Gustafson. Gustafson receive 54% of the vote. Political analysts said after the race that the Republican backing of Brown may have energized Montana liberals to vote for Gustafson, and may have perturbed voters who are accustomed to the nonpartisan tradition of the courts.
Following a question about the selection of judges, Wilson briefly discussed the race between Brown and Gustafson, mentioning Brown’s GOP endorsements. Wilson recalled advice he had heard from a scholar of judicial ethics who said that political groups have a right to make judicial endorsements under the right to free speech. However, Wilson once again took the opportunity to tout his nonpartisanship.
“There are very deeply held beliefs and opinions held in just about every sector of our political life. All the various actors, all the various groups, they consider themselves completely nonpartisan. I know that I am,” Wilson said.
When asked if the Supreme Court should be allowed to hear challenges to, and strike down, recently passed legislation that it deems unconstitutional, Wilson affirmed the court’s right to judicial review, yet said that the court should be responsible for following the law, rather than creating it.
“The Supreme Court may only declare a legislative enactment to be unconstitutional if it is shown to be beyond a reasonable doubt that the legislation is in conflict with the constitution itself. That, I can tell you, is a very tall order,” Wilson said.
A number of laws passed by the 2023 Montana Legislature have been challenged in recent months, with courts blocking laws that barred drag performances for children, gender-affirming healthcare for transgender minors and dilation and evacuation abortion procedures after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
State Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, asked Wilson if he believes the Supreme Court should be able to employ the Constitution to rule on issues that are not mentioned directly in the Constitution.
Regier cited a recent lawsuit brought by environmental groups against the state of Montana over the constitutionality of newly drawn districts for the state’s Public Service Commission. Advocacy groups have argued that the districts were unfairly drawn to benefit Republicans. Regier rebuked the lawsuit, dismissing it as an effort by Democrats to overturn maps that they “didn’t like.” The lawsuit awaits a hearing in Lewis and Clark County District Court.
Wilson said it is “a very dangerous road to follow” to “borrow doctrines or jurisprudence from particular parts of the Constitution and graph them onto others where perhaps the issue is silent.”
A handful of attendees at the Pachyderm meeting expressed support for Wilson, with one member telling the audience that Wilson’s campaign offered a chance to send “one of our own” from Flathead County to the Supreme Court.
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